by Mark Jean & Christopher C. Carlson
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I haven’t seen this book around very much, but I hope you find it. If you do, you’re in for a treat. For between its covers lies a fantasy world that is both adorable and terrifying, both eerily familiar and totally original. And the entrance to that world is, of all things, a puddle of water in an Illinois wheat field.
The chief denizens of that hidden world are little people with the webbed fingers and toes. They’re called (surprise!) Puddlejumpers, though I’m not sure how that’s spelled in their language. They don’t speak English, but something more closely tied to the spirit of the earth — an Ojibwe dialect, maybe? Whatever language it is, it has a prophecy in it that a Rainmaker will be born in the world above: the world of humans. And unless that Rainmaker battles the evil Troggs and the forces of the Most Dark, both worlds will shrivel up and die.
The story opens on the night the promised Rainmaker is born. Born at the moment of his mother’s death in a farmhouse near Center, Illinois, Shawn Frazier has it pretty good for a while. His widowed father Russ gets over his heartbreak and dotes on his son, while the boy also enjoys the friendship of the little people who only show themselves to him. But after six months, the Puddlejumpers decide to keep baby Shawn for themselves, the better to prepare him for his heroic role. Topside, this means Russ is devastated by the complete disappearance of his only child. Down-below, however, it is the beginning of great things for the Wawaywo, as the Puddlejumpers call him.
Three years later, disaster strikes. Or rather, the Troggs do. The Puddlejumpers are forced to flee with a human toddler many times larger than themselves. In an escape of breathtaking desperation, the child is separated from his tiny guardians, found by a truck driver, and left on the steps of an orphanage in Chicago with no clues about where he came from except a crystal acorn (from the Puddlejumpers) and an Ernie Banks baseball card (from the truck driver).
So the wild Wawaywo child, who remembers nothing of being Shawn Frazier, grows up as a Chicago orphan named – guess what! – Ernie Banks. The cruelty of the dormitory matron pushes Ernie into one act of defiance after another, until the only thing standing between him and the state reformatory is a summer stint as a farm laborer. And by a chance more remarkable than Ernie understands, the farm belongs to Russ Frazier!
Ernie finds the country around Center, Illinois, depressed by a long drought and terrorized by the Holsapple family, who have been strip-mining every acre of land they can get hold of. Befriended by a girl named Joey, inspired by the kindness of a man he doesn’t know is his own father, Ernie vows to solve the mystery of the Quilt Baby — which is to say, his own disappearance. But before he works it all out, he must renew his acquaintance with a secret world threatened by enemies too terrifying for any ordinary boy to face. And face them he must, because not only the Puddlejumpers’ world but his own family and community are at stake.
I found this book on the discount table at Borders last December, and forgot about it till now. I won’t forget it again soon. It is a powerful, vividly imagined tale, told with great energy and conviction. I also suspect that, hidden in the description of the Most Dark that overshadows the climax of the book, there is an environmental message that will make it even more meaningful to green-conscious kids. But that’s up to the reader to decide for himself. I hope a lot of readers will find it, one way or another.